Teetering Canaries


On Nature

Illustration by Na Kim.

Translated by Imogen Taylor

One stifling hot night in early August, I dreamed, as I always do when I have a fever, the old, familiar dream: the earth opens up before my feet, a gaping pit appears, and into this pit I fall, then clamber straight back out, as eager as a cartoon character, only to fall into the next pit that suddenly yawns before me. An endless obstacle course engineered by some higher power, an experiment going nowhere, the opposite of a story. This dream has followed me since childhood and is probably as old as the realization that I will, one day, end up in a pit forever. As a piece of drama, it is extremely simple, and yet it’s an effective dream and no more unoriginal than that of my friend Sibylle, who told me over breakfast a few days later that she has regular nightmares of being swept away by a vast, tsunami-like wave.

I was reminded that of all the arts I would like to master, lucid dreaming is at the top of the list: you sleep and dream, fully aware that you are asleep and dreaming, but the real skill lies in being able to intervene in the events of your dream and steer the plot in your favor. As a lucid dreamer, I could, with no trouble at all, see to it that the steam train hurtling toward me was brought to a halt by, say, a lady-chimp passenger with the presence of mind to interrupt her grooming and pull the emergency brake. I could arrange for my missing child, lost in the fairground throng, to reappear, bright and chirpy, on the broad shoulders of a gently smiling nurse. I could even have a burned jungle returned in dizzying time-lapse to its former chlorophyll-drenched glory and commandeered by a raucous and triumphant menagerie. I could rewrite my nightmares with every narrative device available to me, draining them of the horror that resonates deep into waking life. All the signs, all experience, all probability notwithstanding, I could make everything end happily. I could transform leaden impotence into mercurial superpower with daring and ingenuity, unafraid of even the most implausible twist.

Midpoints, Sibylle explained to me—she was plotting out a streaming series and had papered one side of the hall in her apartment with Post-its—midpoints are what screenwriters call those decisive events that change the course of a film’s action and send it heading toward a new destination on the plot horizon. Tipping points, I knew from the science pages of the newspapers, are those critical moments when climate and ecological systems shift from one state to another—decisive but elusive events that have such a huge impact on the environment that conditions are thrown off-balance. Ecosystems, for example, are so severely weakened, or populations of individual species so seriously depleted that they no longer recover but collapse, tip over, leaving behind them what, in the drastic vocabulary of Sibylle’s screenwriting theory, is known as the point of no return. A simple enough phrase, but what it means to reach that point where there is no going back defies not only imagination but terminology and narrative patterns.

The question of when exactly tipping points are reached is, despite decades of feverish research, difficult to predict. There is a wealth of data on the subject—figures that chart the various factors with relative precision, from the number of carbon dioxide particles in the Earth’s atmosphere to the rising sea level to the maximum temperatures measured since records began and the projected number of plant and animal species lost daily to extinction. Plotted onto a graph in an impressively simple-looking grid of coordinates and neatly divided into units, this data can be extrapolated, and correlations established, but the result is only a series of formidable curves which, bar a few fluctuations, move with an apparent sense of purpose from the bottom left to the top right-hand corner—from the one known, unchangeable past to several unknown futures.

These prophecies are at once concrete and abstract; the scenarios they spell out made about as much sense to me as the mosaic of scrawled Post-its on Sibylle’s wall. I walked up and down the hall, deciphering the occasional note, especially the bright signal-yellow ones that Sibylle had used to flag the midpoints. But the overall plot eluded me. I was sweating, though the hall was the coldest place in the apartment and it wasn’t yet noon. Perhaps my temperature was up again, I thought, and I asked Sibylle for a rapid test, but like all the others I’d taken, it turned out negative.

That morning, a voice on the radio had announced that it was the driest summer on record. The newspapers, meanwhile—this was national news, not local—were reporting a mysterious fish kill of scandalous proportions in the Oder River. In the first articles on the topic, an angler referred to the event as “a tragedy,” the environmental minister called it “a disaster,” and a scientist described it as “a massacre.” A stretch of more than five hundred kilometers of a river that was both boundary and connection between two European countries was as good as dead; its ecosystem had tipped over.

I didn’t know whether Sibylle had read Aristotle’s Poetics as a student, but his idea that a poet should write not about what has happened but about what might happen still applied. To what extent, however, poetry could be used to describe a present of overlapping emergencies and tipping points was more than doubtful.

Sibylle’s original plan had been to set her series in the near future, and she had taken several stabs at establishing the difference between our present and the time of the show’s action. But since coming across a quotation by the author Kim Stanley Robinson describing science fiction as “the realism of our time,” Sibylle had declared the problem obsolete. The future was unequally distributed; evidently the past was, too. Only recently, the demise of the fossil age had seemed imminent—an arduous but inevitable process; now, all over Europe, mothballed coal power plants were being prepared for reactivation. No climate curve could compete with the material immediacy, the archaic weight of war. When the bombs fell, everything went through the floor.

At home, I looked up the passage in the Poetics to see what Aristotle had to say about turning points. “Peripeteia,” he writes in Chapter Eleven, is a reversal from one state of affairs to its opposite, “from ignorance to knowledge, and thus to either friendship or enmity, depending on whether the characters are destined for good or ill fortune.” I caught myself wondering what we were destined for. Not the bombastic apocalypse of the book of Revelation, that was for sure—but evangelical hopes of deliverance were equally out of the question, with their guilt-steeped, redemption-starved slogans clamoring for nothing less than the “salvation of the world.” Aristotle had it good, I thought; he had the whole soap opera of Greek myth at his disposal. “Every tragedy,” I read, a little further on, “is made up of complication and dénouement. The complication consists of the prehistory and part of the action; the dénouement comprises the rest.”

I was aware that the history of life on Earth was no stage play and the emergence of humans an astounding but fleeting protein-based event; I knew that, like other strange and wonderful beings, we would one day vanish. But I couldn’t help myself; I saw the scenes play out in my mind again: the planet burning, then seething and steaming, then squelching; water withdrawing and continental plates shifting; forests growing rampant, oceans filling with life, animals coming on land to explore—until, an eternity and a few glacial seconds later, a stooped, hirsute, armed creature emerged, with whom I had learned to identify. The rest was settlement and deforestation, mining, urbanization and satellite junk. I was stuck. If that was the prehistory, and human life was not to end in tragedy, we needed a dénouement—a solution, a turning point. But what form should it take? My brain, which had been just large enough to fit through the birth canal, seemed to have reached its limits. All it came up with was the worst kind of ecokitsch, calendar quotes such as “We have only borrowed the Earth …” and “Only when the last tree …”—words of wisdom that I had once written on my exercise books in glitter pen and whose half life was shorter than that of a plastic bag rotting in a bush. The more dramatic announcement—another tipping-point warning—that it was already “five to midnight” seemed, ironically, to be one of the oldest catchphrases around and had completely outlived itself. But there was that other common idiom, particularly popular in the English-speaking world, of “the canary in the coal mine”—a cryptic, equivocal expression that evoked a little yellow bird in the hidden bowels of the Earth. A fowl of the air in the underworld, relegated to lightless depths where it sings its song, perched in a small cage, because that’s all it can do and because, torn from its context, it does what birds so often do in human stories: it produces a surplus of beauty, grace, and meaning. But how, I wondered, had the bird found its way into the mine—into that figure of speech, that metaphor, that image of disorientation, of misery, mercy, danger, the Anthropocene?

While searching for the origin of the expression, I came across a character—and characters, as I knew from Sibylle, were always good. People were still more interested in people than anything else—this was, of course, a not insignificant part of the problem. My character was the Scottish physiologist John Scott Haldane, whose first biographical turning point might, in the script of a biopic, be the scene in which fourteen-year-old John sees his elder brother George turn copper-colored and struggle to breathe for days on end until he is carried off by diphtheria. The physiological miracle of human breathing would hold a lifelong fascination for Haldane and inspire him to a number of inventions, from the haemoglobinometer to a prototype space suit, but also to some rather abstruse experiments that might make for some good scenes in a biopic: his field trips to collect samples of contaminated air in the Dundee slums and London sewers, for instance, or his studies of altitude sickness at Pikes Peak, Colorado and decompression sickness in the deep sea lochs of Scotland—not to mention the test involving goats in a decompression chamber, at the end of which the poor creatures teetered out of the porthole-like opening, staggering on their feet.

But the scene that leads to the little bird comes earlier, in the 1890s, when Haldane, a man in his midthirties, is investigating mining accidents in British collieries. The coal from those pits was used to power the puffing machines of the motherland of industrialization—machines whose wondrous, many-cogged mechanisms not only unleashed enormous quantities of energy and produced a highly ramified industrial system, but also sent vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and masses of workers into misery.

Haldane appears in this fog-shrouded scene wearing overalls and a miner’s helmet and carrying a cage full of mice and a leather case marked in signal red with the forbidding words London Fever Hospital. He is already a renowned respiratory expert and has been called to the scene of the accident in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, if not to save the lives of the casualties then at least to prevent further accidents.

It goes without saying that conditions in coal mines were, then as now, unhealthy and often even life-threatening—and explosions, triggered by coal dust or gases, were all too common. In the biopic, we see Haldane in the pit, taking blood not only from the dead miners but also from the pit ponies that have perished underground with them. We also see—it’s a color film, of course—that he is troubled by the carmine hue of the blood; we see his gaze fall on the Davy lamps that are still burning next to the corpses. Then come a few scenes of rising action, but eventually—after a change of scene to his laboratory in Oxford—Haldane is able to prove that the majority of victims did not die, as supposed, in underground explosions or from a lack of oxygen, but were poisoned with carbon monoxide, that colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that inhibits oxygen intake even when inhaled in only the most minute quantities and kills large land mammals such as horses or humans within a couple of hours.

Haldane’s life was one big self-experiment; one of his biographers even described him as a kind of “canary in the coal mine” himself, so strong was his habit of self-experimentation. In a later scene, we might see him studying the effects of carbon monoxide on his own organism and comparing the results with the effects of the same substance on a mouse. While he observes only a slight drowsiness in himself, the mouse is already curled up unconscious in a corner of its cage, the pale fur of its belly exposed. Haldane grabs the little body, opens the window and almost immediately—it is literally a matter of seconds—the mouse, who remains unnamed in the script, recovers consciousness.

Switch scenes again and Haldane is recommending to the miners that they use mice as “sentinel animals”—but as the rodents are rife in the pits, and always after the men’s victuals, they are clearly not trustworthy enough for the job. In fact, it won’t be long before mice are cast as canaries in the drama of human medical history and used as model organisms in genetic research, but that would be another film altogether, a documentary that would open in a park in Novosibirsk with a tracking shot onto a bronze statue of a bespectacled mouse about the size of a baby, dressed in a lab coat and wielding a pair of needles with which it appears to be knitting a DNA helix.

But to return to our hero. Haldane eventually strikes on another, smaller species of warm-blooded creatures that are similarly practical, almost as easy to acquire and keep, but most importantly, have an impressive track record as pets. Canaries are also such efficient breathers that they absorb oxygen even when they exhale; this makes them extremely sensitive to toxic gases—sensitive enough to lose consciousness some twenty minutes earlier than humans. Twenty minutes is a long time, long enough to leave the mine and return to the surface, to fill one’s lungs with fresh oxygen and escape asphyxiation. What’s more, the symptoms of poisoning are immediately apparent: an unconscious canary will stop singing and fall in a swoon from its perch—an unmistakable warning sign. And aren’t those bright yellow feathers a sign in themselves, crying out to be interpreted?

Some sources claimed that the first canaries to be sent down into the mines were deviant specimens that had been withdrawn from sale and were going for a bargain: male birds with less attractive plumage and poor singing skills. But the contemporary literature that I managed to find on the subject—titles such as Katechismus der Kanarienzucht (The canary breeder’s catechism, 1901) or Der Kanarienvogel: als Hausfreund der deutschen Familie (The canary: a friend of the German family, 1908)—never tired of complaining that “the English fancy” for breeding canaries for their color and form alone, “with no heed to the birds’ singing power,” had brought forth “monstrosities” such as the long-necked, humpbacked Scotch Fancy, the London Lizard with its scalelike markings, and the Yorkshire Spangle, a straw-yellow bird with a brown-green cap and eye rings that was “particularly popular among the lower classes of the population”—“the strongest” but also, as the author remarks, not without a touch of chauvinism, the “most phlegmatic breed of English canary.”

There is one scene without which no Haldane biopic would be complete. It is set underground and shows a group of miners—some still boys, some aged before their time—having whistling competitions with the birds in their little cages. Since canaries are good mimics, this scene should perhaps be imagined as a kind of concert—a high-pitched, cross-species, underground concert, the voices echoing and answering one another, spurring each other on. I liked the idea that the men kept an eye on the birds, concerned about their well-being—not least because their own depended on it. I also liked the thought that they, in turn, would save the lives of their lifesavers in an emergency.

It touched me to read that the miners mourned their canaries when they were replaced in the eighties by more sensitive but soulless detectors known as electronic noses; the underground symbiosis between them had transformed the birds from avian early warning mechanisms into something more like companions. The empty cages ended up in museums and became anecdotal material for a chapter in industrial history, along with Haldane’s “canary resuscitator,” now on display at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, a contraption designed for the immediate resuscitation of unconscious birds—a cast-iron box with glass sides, its porthole-like opening firmly bolted with a swivel pin. Atop this box, screwed fast in the grip of a pipe clamp, is a shiny black cartridge that strangely resembles an atomic bomb. A nickel-plated copper pipe connects it to the inside. Behind the glass sits a small bird, yellow with green patches, its pale pink beak raised, its tiny black eyes gleaming as they reflect a distant source of light. The bird is dead as a doornail, its stuffed body attached to a perch with invisible wire. Its life—so much is clear—could not be saved by the resuscitator.

As so often, the obsolete and discarded are to be found hibernating in the parallel universe of language. In metaphor, the pit canaries live on, haunting the news like miniature Cassandras—practical, feathered oracles that fall mute in the face of disaster and drop dramatically from their perches at that precarious point where life tips over into death. These figurative canaries turn out to be every bit as adaptable as their real-life models. In recent articles, the phrase “canary in the coal mine” has been used, variously, to refer to a species of water flea called Daphnia that is sensitive to chemical substances, the drought-ravaged wine industry of Australia, a foundering baseball star, methane-spewing craters in Serbia, the canceled Batgirl movie, and thousands of dead manatees starving off the coast of Florida.

But the metaphor is not always uncontroversial. In 2021, the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, stated with some force that the Pacific Island nations, already long affected by global warming, were tired of playing the part of the plucky little sentinel bird. “We refuse to be the proverbial canaries in the world’s coal mine, as we are so often called,” he said, adding, “We want more for ourselves than to be helpless songbirds whose demise serves as a warning to others.”Their lives, after all, were not figurative; they were actual and actually under threat—and they wanted, understandably, to be saved for their own sake, and not because the nations responsible for their plight saw their predicament as an anticipation of their own precarious future.

The canary metaphor was on the point of becoming an empty cage, a cliché. It seemed to obscure rather than reveal, like the 1934 camouflage publication that I came across in the catalogue of the Berlin State Library. Listed as Der Kanarienvogel: ein praktisches Handbuch über Naturgeschichte, Pflege und Zucht des Kanarienvogels (The canary: a practical guide to the natural history, care and breeding of canaries), this book turned out to contain Molotov’s speech on the second five-year plan at the seventeenth conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Figures of speech are never innocent, and even canaries are less innocent than one might imagine. Buffon, in his Natural History of Birds, may describe “the musician of the chamber” as a “delicate,” “social,” and “gentle” bird—“its caresses are amiable, its little pets are innocent, and its anger neither hurts nor offends”—but his contemporary, Goethe, has Werther almost expire with longing when Lotte’s canary caresses her mouth with its bill and then proceeds to kiss his: “His little beak moved from her mouth to mine, and the delightful sensation seemed like the forerunner of the sweetest bliss.” The meaning of this “sweetest bliss” is hinted at not only in the German verb vögeln (to fuck; literally, “to bird”) but also in Dutch seventeenth-century genre paintings, in which a caged bird is a common and unequivocal symbol of virginity—a state that is, by definition, precarious.

While searching for the origin of this association, I came across an image of ravished innocence in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, where, aptly enough, it is mining that is depicted as a nonconsensual act, the rape of Mother Earth:

We trace out all the fibres of the earth […] We penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed […]

[…] we probe her entrails, digging into her veins of gold and silver and mines of copper and lead; we actually drive shafts into the depth to search for gems and certain tiny stones; we drag out her entrails, we seek a jewel merely to be worn upon a finger!

I wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or fatalistic about such serendipity. The story I’d set out to tell seemed to be a very old one.

Perhaps the main tipping points lay so far back in time that, rather than simply damn their consequences—the part that was usually faded out—we should learn to value them. It occurred to me that plenty of ruined landscapes that had been abandoned by humans were now places of refuge for threatened species and would soon be conservation areas. It was getting complicated.

“The extraction of ores and other mineral resources,” I dictated to myself, just to get things straight in my mind, “is inextricably linked not only with almost all human achievements in technology and civilization, but also—more than any other trade or industry—with massive overexploitation, devastating destruction, and a state in which nature and culture are no longer distinguishable and produce such strange amalgams as canary birds.”

The birds I was trying to set free were all flying straight back into their cages. They were no longer natural beings but cultural products of a centuries-old history of domestication, shaped above all by the unimaginative laws of a market—a history that began with the breeding monopoly of Spanish monks in the fifteenth century and was still going strong in the late nineteenth century when the rise of the mail-order industry ended in the deaths of so many birds. This wasn’t the story I wanted to tell: the dull, powerful, ubiquitous interplay of supply and demand, which had given us, on the one hand, the homogeneous cultural landscapes of Central Europe that I liked to escape to in my free time and, on the other hand, these birds—virtuoso warblers with a range of up to nearly three octaves, whose trilling I had listened to for a time on endless YouTube videos and could no longer hear without getting a headache.

For a particularly mellifluous specimen, old canary guides recommend keeping a male bird on his own, though some manuals have condemned this as cruel, pointing out that canaries sing to impress potential mates and rivals and to mark their territory. I was reminded of a theory for why evolution has given us not only an inexhaustible variety of biological answers to the question of what life is but also such peculiar, decadent, and superfluous gifts as beauty, ornament, and culture—the hummingbird’s iridescent feathers, the baboon’s pornographically bare bum, and, of course, the delights of birdsong. The theory had what I considered one of the best names a theory can have. It was called singing for sex, and in its out-and-out obsession with vögeln, it rivaled the writings of Sigmund Freud.

But there was another, more modest—and moving—interpretation, which saw birdsong as something that behavioral biologists refer to as the contact call. Also features of human behavior, contact calls are sounds made to convince those around you—and also, to an extent, yourself—that you still exist. An “I’m here; where are you?” A whistling in the dark—at once self-reassurance and protective magic.

The best canary singers are said to have lived on Fuerteventura, before deforestation and overgrazing transformed the island into a desert. There are still flocks of Atlantic canaries on Madeira, the Azores, and the western Canary Islands; my research told me that, with a population of about 1.5 to 2.5 million pairs, the species was classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. What was concerning, however, was the dwindling populations of a number of other animal and plant species native to the Canaries, such as the dragon tree, the Canary Islands Large White, the Iberian water frog, and a handful of endemic species of giant lizards.

More concerning still was that, although a glut of poisonous golden algae had been identified as the cause of the fish kill, it remained unclear what had triggered it. Not for the first time, factors were too complex to allow the incident to be treated as a straightforward criminal case in which the perpetrators had only to be tracked down, brought to justice and duly punished. An affair that had destroyed the lives of millions of creatures was at risk of petering out in inquiry committees and mutual finger-pointing. Volunteers were called on to gather the hundreds of tons of stinking fish corpses from the riverbanks and dispose of them in dumpsters before they sank to the bottom of the river and further polluted the water by consuming oxygen as they decomposed. I didn’t have the words to comprehend these tons of dead fish—creatures that, more than any others, are proverbially mute, even in life.

Somewhere there was mention of damage limitation, but what I wanted was a face, a character, a hero. Someone who would rescue rather than repair—an expert like Haldane, an eccentric scientist who was on the side of the good guys and would make ground-breaking discoveries with his tests and experiments, preventing not only humans but freshwater fish and mollusks from death by asphyxiation. Hundreds of tons of dead fish—it was apocalyptic. But there was no lake of fire. It had even begun to rain. Life went on.

Before a canary falls from its perch, it begins to teeter. Before a system tips over completely, there are often major fluctuations and complications: populations rise and fall, and inconclusive test results cloud the already murky picture. But by then, as scientific models—and experience—teach us, developments cannot be stopped. The shit hits the fan. The situation spirals out of control, setting off an unpredictable chain of irreversible and, indeed, irreparable events, which for some reason I imagined as a custard-pie showdown in a silent film, in which the pie lands in the face of an innocent bystander, triggering a series of unlikely but inevitable chain reactions before the picture fades on a disconcertingly tranquil-looking scene of devastation.

There was no way back. The canary metaphor was teetering. It might be a compelling image, but it was no use to us, because, like it or not, Earth wasn’t a coal mine that could be evacuated in an emergency, even if tired fantasies of colonizing nearby planets had recently made something of a comeback. It would take more than the behavior of a bird to bring home to us that the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the extraction of coal and other fossil fuels was so drastically altering conditions for life on Earth that the future had become not only an uncertain place but a frightening one.

In Aristotle’s time, the Canary Islands lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, at the end of the world, and those who didn’t have the time to make the pilgrimage to Delphi, Olympia, or Claros relied on the observation of birds and the interpretation of dreams to provide them with oracles in their day-to-day lives. While dreams in those days were divine prophecies—the medium of choice for communications from higher spheres—in our culture they are at best expressions of the fears and desires buried deep in our psyches. I knew from years of analysis that such fears and desires can be almost impossible to tell apart, so I was unimpressed to hear that dreams about falling into pits have, not very originally, been linked to the discovery of having a vagina rather than a penis.

There can be few concepts that so closely interweave human fears and desires as the Anthropocene. Man-made, like all words, whether grace, or Gaia, or greenhouse gas, the term Anthropocene was coined to give a name to the world-dominating part played by our species in the drama of life on Earth and, at the same time, to sanction the rapacious work of industrial societies as human nature. The dilemma surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene is an old one: there is no such thing as unbiased description. With every word we utter, with every metaphor or idiom we use, we are shaping the world. The trouble is, as experience has taught us, that, despite their far-reaching consequences, life’s tipping points and turning points are often revealed to us only with a certain time lag. Moments that seem innocuous enough as we live through them later realize their fateful and inevitable potential. Historiography, whether concerned with one’s own life or with the use—or abuse—of the Earth, doesn’t identify the linchpins until it’s too late.

When did this desperate state of affairs begin? With the extermination of the saber-toothed tiger in prehistoric times, or with the introduction of the steam engine in the early modern era? With the Mesopotamian accounting system which invented stockpiling and the concept of ownership, or with the Neolithic or Industrial Revolution? With mining, that most unfathomable of arts? Or with one of Fritz Haber’s inventions? But which? The one that led to the production of artificial fertilizer and the feeding of billions, or the one that enabled enemy soldiers to be wiped out with toxic gases in World War I? It was good old Haldane, the secret hero of this essay, who braved the front as a human canary in May 1915 to identify the lethal vapors at the Battle of Ypres as chlorine gas, and immediately invented a makeshift gas mask to protect against them. It all linked up. No creature is imaginable without its environment. Or as Haldane put it, rather more soberingly, in his 1935 study The Philosophy of a Biologist—having progressed with admirable logic from breathing specialist to environmental physiologist:

The fact that the life of an organism extends over its environment implies that the lives of different organisms, although they are distinguishable, enter into each other’s lives. There is no spatial separation between the lives of different organisms, just as there is no spatial separation within the life of any one organism.

When I tried to tell Sibylle about it that evening, she waved me away. “Exactly. It wasn’t a weapon, it was a bag,” she said, somewhat incoherently, “and the whole of early history, with its bragging myths about hunting and killing, was a masculine, heroic, imperial narrative that’s left us screwed.” Some of the Post-its lay scattered on the floor. She had discovered Ursula K. Le Guin and decided to transfer Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” onto the epic arc of her series plot—a story without heroes, blending character and background; a Where’s Waldo? picture effortlessly spanning multiple universes. I was convinced, but had no idea what it meant for my writing—no idea how to convey such obscure mycelial webs in language, in a script that depends on gaps to create a readable text, in a grammar that, however sophisticated, tends to rigidity. The genre question also reared its head again. I’d never been much of a fan of that bourgeois, individualistic genre that is the novel, but that hadn’t stopped me from devouring its prototype, in which a white man on a desert island reenacts a rather questionable version of the processes of civilization, slavery and all. It came back to me that Robinson Crusoe’s main problem was not hunger but loneliness, which he attempted to ward off by taming a young parrot before turning his didactic attention to a member of his own species.

I tried to envisage a world without birds. I tried to imagine the horror, the total quiet, the end of the world. Could silence be loud? Could it spur humans to action? In Silent Spring, a book by another heroic scientist, the marine biologist Rachel Carson, the silence of birds is an urgent warning sign, a call for retreat, and the book, although it makes no mention of pit canaries, is often credited with kick-starting the environmental movement. First published in 1962, it frames birds’ silence as both reality and metaphor—and the absence of birdsong as the salient feature of a wasted region that has been hit by “a strange blight”:

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

Carson leaves no doubt as to who is responsible: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

The chapter is called “A Fable for Tomorrow,” and Carson’s narrative trick is to warn of acute disaster by writing as if it has already struck, and then proceeding to interpret the signs. It was, I thought, the reverse of a strident alarm. The silence of the birds made sense as a signal only if someone had previously heard them sing—only if their absence was noticed. For something to be missed, the memory of it had to be alive.

Carson’s study, an appeal written with both literary sensitivity and scientific vision, was certainly heartening proof that by influencing legislation, books could prevent the extinction of species and save the unmetaphorical lives of countless creatures. Laws and regulations are, in the end, also a kind of literature, with interpretations debating their value, application, and validity.

In 1969, seven years after the publication of Silent Spring—and five years after Carson died of breast cancer—a hearing held in Madison, Wisconsin ended with a breakthrough in the ban on DDT, a toxic, carcinogenic and non-biodegradable substance harmful to vertebrates as well as insects. Not only did scientists at the hearing attest to a sharp decline in the robin population following the use of DDT, and to the universal contamination of human mother’s milk with the pesticide; representatives of the US Department of Agriculture admitted in court that—unlike Haldane—they hadn’t tested for toxicity, but simply accepted the information provided by the manufacturers.

That same year, Kurt Vonnegut addressed an audience of physics teachers at the American Physical Society. Vonnegut, who had himself studied chemistry and German—an interesting choice in the late thirties—spoke of his doubts about the usefulness of the arts, “with the possible exception of interior decoration,” and went on to present what he called “the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts”:

This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

The most useful thing I could do before this meeting today is to keel over right now. On the other hand, artists are keeling over by the thousands every day and nobody seems to pay the least attention.

It is unlikely that Vonnegut wore a canary-yellow suit to give this speech; he was probably wearing one of his fawn jackets—another color to be found in the canary breeder’s palette. Nor did he keel over at any point in the course of his address. But he did tell his audience of the urgent and seemingly simple advice that he liked to give young people to warn them out of the deep, dark pit:

When I speak to students, I do moralize. I tell them not to take more than they need, not to be greedy. I tell them not to kill, even in self-defense. I tell them not to pollute water or the atmosphere. I tell them not to raid the public treasury. I tell them not to work for people who pollute water or the atmosphere or who raid the public treasury. I tell them not to commit war crimes or to help others to commit war crimes.

The main character in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, also published in 1969, is quite definitely a canary. But rather than keel over, Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time,” because he is too sensitive to cope with the atrocities he witnessed during the bombing of Dresden. In a plot that jumps wildly back and forth, disregarding all chronology, Billy is abducted by extraterrestrials, who here assume the implausible—but no less surprising—role of deus ex machina, that higher power that traditionally intervenes at the last minute to untangle a snarled narrative or avert disaster. Because the horror has already happened.

In a frame story, the narrator, who is evidently closely akin to Vonnegut, writes repeatedly—like me in this essay—of what can be described only as a failure. The failure in his case is his powerlessness to narrate, and thus communicate and share, his experiences of the war—although he does at one point claim that, as “a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations,” he has “outlined the Dresden story many times.” When at last he gives the manuscript to his agent, the agent is disappointed that it’s so short. The narrator defends himself:

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

I found it heartening that Vonnegut allowed the birds to survive the massacre. My mind still refused to grasp that the story wasn’t about us—that Homo sapiens wasn’t the hero of the drama but only a blurry character blending into the background, doing what birds do when they make contact calls. The canary bird was me, and it was calling to me, reassuring me that I still existed, in a present whose precarity was not only identified as such by science but brought to life by art—a world full of midpoints, X factors, and unsettling beauty; a web of unconditionally interdependent life.

I was exhausted. A lack of knowledge didn’t seem to be the problem. The Club of Rome had just published a new report which, fifty years after its infamous diagnosis on the limits to growth, came to a verdict that left me reeling. “The biggest challenge in the world today,” I read, with faint dread, “is not climate change, biodiversity loss, or even a pandemic. It is our collective inability to distinguish between fact and fiction.”

I shivered.

It had dropped cold overnight. In Sibylle’s hall, logs were stacked in front of a now bare wall. All the Post-its had vanished. Her gas supplier had shut off the gas and she had ordered a wood-burning stove on the internet, which would, with any luck, be delivered before the frost set in. Come winter, we would do what Aristotle had done when he was cold: we would make a fire. And perhaps we would tell ourselves a story that mattered.



Months later, at the end of a warm winter with little rain and even less snow, the environmental organization Greenpeace published a report identifying three hard coal mines in Upper Silesia as the cause of the Oder fish kill. These mines dump the highly saline water that is a waste product of coal mining into the nearby tributaries of the Oder and the Vistula. Polish law places essentially no limit on the chloride levels of industrial wastewater discharged into rivers. It is safe to assume that the disaster will repeat itself.


Judith Schalansky, born in Greifswald in former East Germany in 1980, is an acclaimed writer and book designer, and the publisher of a prestigious natural history imprint in Berlin. Her books, including Atlas of Remote Islands, the novel The Giraffe’s Neck, and the International Booker Prize and National Book Award nominee An Inventory of Losses, have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and have received numerous awards. This essay won the Crespo Foundation’s Wortmeldungen Literaturpreis 2023.

Imogen Taylor is a London-born, Berlin-based literary translator. Her translation of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s Beside Myself was shortlisted for the 2020 Schlegel-Tieck Prize and the 2021 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. Other work includes How We Desire by Carolin Emcke, Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself by Florian Huber, and Two Women and a Poisoning by Alfred Döblin.

The lines of Aristotle’s Poetics in this essay are translated by Imogen Taylor from a German edition: Aristoteles: Poetik, translated and edited by Manfred Fuhrmann, 2010.